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The modern political landscape is much more complex than you realize. The complexities are recent in coming. Do you know what they are?

The Hidden Dimensions of American Politics, Part I

It is generally true that most abstract or general principles are best illuminated by getting down to cases, the nitty-gritty, the nuts and bolts of the thing. Take the Dershowitz-Prager debate, for instance. Though the subject matter is ostensibly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its import transcends this by now all too familiar and perhaps over-discussed topic; what is being said is far less interesting or important than what is being left out. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this exchange, let me recap.

Alan Dershowitz is an ardent and vociferous proponent of the Israelis' right to defend themselves against attacks from such entities as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the like. He has written a number of books and articles on the subject, and if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. His views haven’t changed one bit and he makes no bones about it. The article in question, “Double Standard Watch: Israel’s Actions are Lawful and Commendable” in The Jerusalem Post of January 4, 2009, is fairly representative of Mr. Dershowitz’s position; aside from being brief, it encapsulates it to a T.

Dershowitz’s argument turns on two major points: (a) Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which reserves to every nation the right to engage in self-defense against armed attacks; and (b) “the principle of proportionality,” which is the only limitation international law places on any nation-state or a democracy so attacked, namely, that the casualties (or the collateral damage) inflicted on the aggressor – civilian or otherwise, but mostly civilian – in the course of its act of self-defense, be proportional to the damage it itself suffers at the hands of the aggressor. Dershowitz argues, and I think convincingly, that Israel’s actions against Hamas satisfy the aforementioned principle; he cites example after example of Israeli restraint when it comes to bombing known Hamas targets which are believed to be protected by human shields. As to the first-mentioned item, Article 51 is part of the record. Insofar as Alan Dershowitz is concerned, it’s an open-and-shut case. How couldn’t it be?

In light of that, Mr. Dershowitz is rather dismayed by his apparent inability to sway the world to his view. He finds it perturbing. In an effort to get clear, he enumerates a number of divergent responses. One is the position held by Hamas itself and other parties directly or indirectly involved in or supporting the act of Hamas’s alleged aggression, such as Iran and other terrorist networks, which are intent on Israel’s destruction as a nation-state and a people. Quite rightly, he dismisses them for being irrelevant, self-serving and all that.

Next, he moves on to consider the responses from major geopolitical players, Russia, China, and the like. Since they obviously have a vested interest in perpetuating the Middle East conflict, he dismisses them too.

Mr. Dershowitz can live with the position held by the U.S. and the State department; whether tacitly or overtly, they support Israel. But what exercises his conscience most is the UN view (and that of the European community): how can they condemn Israel in light of their own charter?

Let’s shelve for the moment the merits or the demerits of Mr. Dershowitz’s argument. What I want to focus on now is Dennis Prager’s response in “Dissecting Dershowitz” in the Jewish World Review, January 6, 2009. It’s short and sweet.

In essence, Mr. Prager criticizes Mr. Dershowitz for suffering from cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas at once. What makes Mr. Prager’s argument all the more compelling is he seems to agree with Mr. Dershowitz on all the major points. Then he poses the question, “Why on earth, Alan, would you want to continue as a member of the Left when the Left’s position on such an important (to you) issue is equivalent to that held by the UN, which you yourself have characterized time and again as verging on moral idiocy? Wouldn’t it make more sense under the circumstances to switch sides and join the right wing or the conservative party? The Christian right in particular,” concludes Mr. Prager, “all believers in Judeo-Christian values, are the most stalwart supporters of Israel. Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in their midst?”

Thus stands the challenge. “Put your money where your mouth is, Alan, or shut up,” Mr. Prager is saying, in effect. And it appears that he has presented Mr. Dershowitz with a foolproof argument. The fact that it isn’t so, that Thomistic or Aristotelian logic doesn’t apply to cases like that, that Mr. Dershowitz’s options aren’t as clear-cut as Mr. Prager would have us believe, is a most significant thing indeed. I believe Mr. Prager is aware of the fact, or at least suspects that ‘tis so (and so, too, does Mr. Dershowitz), which is why he issued his challenge in the first place, knowing full well that it couldn’t be met. And so this debate, I predict, will peter out; don’t expect Mr. Dershowitz to respond.

Which only reinforces the point I made at the outset — what’s significant about this “debate” is what is being left out, what I believe Mr. Prager and Mr. Dershowitz both share in common and in silence. Let me be so bold as to say that the real subject matter of the Dershowitz-Prager dispute, the flesh and blood of it, if you will, is none other than the concept of the "Left” and of the "Right,” respectively. I submit further that to understand that is to understand the hidden dimensions of American politics; you’ll never be able to view the modern political landscape in the old way.

What is the Left, or the Right for that matter, you may ask. There are many traditional responses to this simple question, many of which may have satisfied in the past and which still reverberate with a semblance of truth. One thinks here, for instance, of a coalition of sorts; a group of like-minded individuals, usually of the same or similar political persuasion, mobilized around one specific issue or set of issues, with the result that they’re perceived to be speaking with one voice. Or, one could point to the exponents of the view or views thus represented; the few select individuals who seem to stand head and shoulders above the rest, and who are being looked up to as standard-bearers. Alternately, one might wish to include here even the channels (or the outlets) more or less dedicated to spreading the message, and which are commonly identified (or associated) with it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these answers per se; even now they’re satisfactory to a point. I’d like to argue, however, that they’re partial at best; that they no longer capture the full meaning; that concepts such as the Left or the Right, by the same token, have evolved beyond their original formulation or understanding to be properly represented by these simplistic, one-sided definitions; that a more comprehensive definition is required in order to fully grasp their present dimensions. To that end, I’d now like to trace their evolution from inception to the present.

Prior to the '60s, such terms as the Left or the Right were virtually nonexistent and absent from our political lexicon. True, there were always divergent views on the American political scene: the abolitionists, the populists, the progressives. But these labels, aside from referring to some specific issue or pet program or project, were, relatively speaking, short-lived. Once their raison d’être was resolved one way or another, so were the groups or coalitions about which they centered. Which isn’t to say they didn’t command public attention while they were hot, only that the longevity of those groups (or political blocs, if you will) was directly related to the longevity of the issue itself. (I am excluding the Communists and any socialist-based movement from the general discussion because they were “un-American,” to use Joe McCarthy’s phrase, and always part of the fringe.) The Vietnam War changed all that. For the first time, we began to hear such terms as the radical, the Left, or the New or Radical Left.

One expression of the general discontent was the student movement and the hippie revolution. Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture is perhaps the most lucid account of those turbulent times, but there were many others. There were other issues besides to keep the fires burning – the Free Speech Movement and Flower Power, the Columbia and Watts riots, the Wounded Knee incident and civil rights, lest we forget; but without Vietnam they would have all come to naught. The defining moment of the Vietnam issue was Kent State, where innocent students and bystanders were shot dead by the National Guard. Ever since, the Left has been on the rise and its exponents plentiful.

We see Jane Fonda (Hanoi Jane, to some) and Tom Hayden, SDS, Mario Savio, and Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn (and Paul Goodman on the more responsible side), the rise of alternative press (The Village Voice, in particular) and magazines like The New Republic or Ramparts. Even politicians are not immune to the signs of the times. Robert F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern all run on the anti-Vietnam platform and become the darlings of the Left. Even Mohammad Ali, a sports figure, becomes an instant icon. And there’s always rock ‘n’ roll. It's no longer a party. It's a movement.

What was it about Vietnam which so energized not only the young, but the rest of the country? Imagine Lyndon B. Johnson, the main force behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, electing not to run because of the pressure; or Richard Nixon squeaking by Hubert Humphrey (the Establishment’s answer to the more radical McCarthy and McGovern) and negotiating for a truce with Vietnam. Gerald Ford was just an episode, a throwback to the Nixon era; so was Reagan, the voice of reaction. Carter and Clinton were the true representatives (again, the Bushes excluded). Now there is Obama, and the Left marches on. But it all goes back to Vietnam. Unless you understand Vietnam, you have no clue as to what the Left is about or its impact on present-day politics.

The same with the Right. Its origins are obscure by comparison; less pedigreed, relegated to the voice of reaction. There was a power vacuum, and it had to be filled. Thus, we saw the emergence of such terms as the Silent Majority (1969), then the Moral Majority (1978), and eventually the Christian Coalition or the Christian Right (1980). But from the get-go, it was a party of default, always on the defensive, always reactionary, to offset the growing power and influence of the Left. Throughout its many evolutions, throughout its many accretions, Vietnam remained the dividing issue, if not de facto, then as a symbol.

Let’s venture an operational definition. The Left or the Right is public opinion mobilized around some polarizing moral issue or issues, and which has attained sufficient critical mass to affect major political decisions in matters of public policy and in any area even remotely connected to the issue at hand. Notice the necessary conditions and how the Vietnam experience met these requirements to a T.

1. Polarizing moral issue: That’s the key element to understanding the nature of the Left. It was born out of moral protest; the issue had divided the country in half. The protesters objected to the basic immorality of their government, as exhibited by a blatant act of aggression. The objectives of those who opposed them were less clearly defined. Defending the status quo and a false sense of patriotism come to mind first. Eventually, the Right coalesced around more positive values – the Church, the home, the family – but the precedent was set. The Left seized the high moral ground; now, it will never let it go. Its strength derives from being, in essence, an emotional (moral) appeal, which is why (and this is only in passing) the Civil War, for instance, pales by comparison; though it was no less polarizing and a moral issue to some, it was, by and large, economic; freeing the slaves served as the pretext.

2. Public opinion: Apart from it being a coalition of sorts, the Left, or more properly perhaps, the voice of the Left, is (for lack of a better term) public opinion. The same is true of the Right. The origin of the concept dates back to Montaigne (1588) and has undergone many evolutions since, but there is hardly a dispute that public opinion plays an important role in politics. This is especially true today, given the virtual explosion in mass communications, media, and the Internet.

3. Critical mass: That’s almost a given. For public opinion to make a difference and count for something, it must be perceived as commanding a large base of support. Again, mass communications plays a critical role here, it’s a precondition facilitating the entire process.

In essence, therefore, the Left and the Right are the culmination of the Fourth Estate concept, once the prerogative of the press. There are important differences, however. In the olden days, the press was free to debate other parliamentary powers issue by issue. Today, its function (and I’m including here all media) is limited largely to being a mouthpiece, nothing but a channel. Moreover, the worldview it espouses is pre-packaged as it were, designed for mass consumption.

This is especially true of America, where the intellectual has always been in disrepute. France and Italy, France especially, might be different; there has always been a strong intellectual tradition in that country, starting with the Enlightenment through the present. Take the Sartre-Camus-Merleau-Ponty quarrel, for instance, immortalized by Simone de Beauvoir in The Mandarins; or the more recent voices, such as Foucault, Derrida and Lacan. Same for Germany, I suppose, where the dispute between Habermas and Jean-François Lyotard over aspects of modernity and post-modernity kept the European intellectual community riveted and on the edges of their seats. But all indications are that even in Europe, the climate is changing. Indeed, the voice of the Left keeps on reasserting itself, drowning out all the dissident and perhaps more enlightened voices, whether you're listening to BBC or Deutschlandfunk, German national radio. And it’s spreading like wildfire.

In light of the above, it’s little wonder that conservatives and liberals alike are apt to join forces on this or that issue, rather than risk being caught in the ideological battle (or the culture wars, as some have recently called it) between the Right and the Left, with the obvious result that the traditional distinction between the liberals and the conservatives is quickly becoming obsolete, or irrelevant, for practical purposes. All too often, they may find themselves on the same side of the fence.

In my conclusion in Part II, I’ll address the implications, in particular, of why Mr. Prager’s challenge to Mr. Dershowitz is not only unreasonable but disingenuous. In passing, I’ll make a suggestion or two as to what the Israelis could do in order to alleviate the weight of public opinion against them but I don’t hold out much hope for that; things will go on pretty much as they have.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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